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Captain's Log: Pondering Star Trek Online's executive shakeup

Ryan Greene

Lieutenant, take the helm! It's time for another edition of Captain's Log, our regular foray into the farthest reaches of Star Trek Online. The big bombshell of the week -- no, not that one -- has left your humble captain with a serious case of the vapors, so allow me a moment to collect myself.

Unless you've been hiding on the holodeck for days -- a wise choice, given the circumstances here on Earth -- you surely have heard the news: STO Executive Producer Craig Zinkievich is gone, baby, gone. According to Zinkievich's farewell letter, Daniel Stahl, formerly a producer on STO, has taken the helm in his place.

I thought we'd briefly discuss Zinkievich's departure before moving on Stahl's recent video interview with the STOked podcast crew, where he dropped some delicious hints about future content and provided insight into his mindset as STO's head honcho.

Auf wiedersehen, adieu

So Craig Zinkievich is out. We sure didn't see it coming, especially with the massive Season 2 patch expected to launch this month. And judging from reactions on the forums, neither did anyone else. Such a major departure naturally invited prognostications of doom and gloom from the teeming masses (more so than usual, anyway). And The Escapist pointed out how "baffling" it is that Zinkievich would leave what he described in his farewell missive as "the coolest job ever."

I can tell you I'm a tad baffled, as well. Sure, Zinkievich has spent two and a half years of his life on STO, but most MMOs spend nearly twice that time just in development. Zink's letter offers no insight into his reasoning, beyond some silliness about goats and bees, so fans are left to speculate. An abrupt, unexplained departure of this magnitude smells to me of two possibilities. The first would be that Zink was pushed out, and while I'm not his biggest fan in some respects, the guy's dedication to the STO product is visible from space. The second possibility would be personal reasons, perhaps an illness or something, and I sure hope that's not the case.

Either way, happy trails, Mr. Zinkievich! It was fun while it lasted.

Meet the new boss...

So with Zinkievich out, Daniel Stahl is in. Stahl was a producer on STO, and now he'll be the mastermind behind shaping everyone's favorite Star Trek MMO. And he's not wasting any time celebrating, if his interview this week with Jupiter Broadcasting's STOked is any indication. The new man in charge dropped a few nuggets of info worth noting, so let's note them, shall we?

  • The end is not nigh
With the departures of Zinkievich and Gozer, a content designer who left in May, and shakeups among the game's community representatives, should fans be worried? Stahl was pretty clear: The STO development team is not crumbling.
"Star Trek Online has had very little turnover compared to other projects that I've worked on," Stahl insisted.

"Their projects on Star Trek have actually catapulted them," Stahl said of those who have left the team, including a few character artists, "and they're actually going on to bigger and better things. I don't feel like there's people leaving the project because they don't want to work on Star Trek."

This is totally understandable! Again, Cryptic Studios developed STO in half the time most studios spend on MMOs, so Zink's departure seems premature. But for artists and designers to build on their work and find other projects is nothing new or frightening. STO isn't dying!

  • Expect deep storylines
Stahl and company hope to add some much-needed depth to STO, starting with weekly storyline episodes. Set to be introduced in Season 2, the idea is for weekly episodes to replicate the fun of the various television series by offering short story arcs. Comparing them to the excellent Past Imperfect storyline from early in the Federation game, Stahl said story arcs will span 5 or 6 weekly episodes. That sounds amazing -- a new story installment every week? Gimme!

"We're just not sure if it's gonna work," Stahl said. "If it takes off, we're just gonna keep making 'em."

  • From concept to reality
When the hosts asked about Iconians, Stahl said he's seen a lot of concept art but no in-game assets. Will the ancient race make an appearance in STO someday? Stahl said it's possible, and then explained a bit of the development process for bringing a species from Star Trek lore into the game. It's definitely worth a listen (as is the rest of the podcast, obviously).

  • Playable factions delayed
Stahl admitted that the promise of adding more playable factions is always in the back of his mind, but he essentially told fans not to hold their breath.

"Adding a new faction right now is kind of doing a disservice to the Klingon faction," he said. "So we've shifted gears away from doing a new faction right now and we're really trying to focus on the two factions we have and making them more equal."

Thank goodness. Finally, some sense-talking. The folks at Cryptic definitely still want to add Romulans and Cardassians and the like, but not anytime soon. And that's fine. I have contended all along that they need to focus on the two current factions, particularly the Klingon side. Speaking of which...

  • Focus on the Klingons
Stahl promised a renewed focus on the Klingon faction in the future, even touting Season 2 as their big Klingon update. But he offered a mixed bag.

On the plus side, Klingon PvE is growing. Stahl said Season 2 will introduce eight Klingon-only episodes and provide Klingons access to the new high-level Undine and Borg episodes. Stahl also teased new customization options on the Klingon side, as well as a mysterious new nemesis for the Klingon Empire.

"They're not your typical Star Trek, walking-around-with-phasers kind of bad-guy group," Stahl said. "They're a little bit more mystical, they're a little bit more ancient-enemy-like. And we're hoping to introduce some types of gameplay that we just haven't seen in Star Trek before."

Unfortunately, a lot of the coming PvE is more of the same. Season 2 will introduce new high-level missions and the new weekly episodes, which is great, but they're open to both factions. On one level, sure, it's great that the Klingon faction has more to do. But that's the sort of double-dipping PvE that Cryptic already gives Klingons. Instead of fleshing out a Klingon storyline, Cryptic first let them into a few previously Federation-only fleet actions, and now this. We'll see how things shape up in the long run -- particularly if the secretive force set to assail the Klingon Empire turns out as awesomely as Stahl suggested it would -- but I'm a tiny bit pessimistic about the Klingon faction's immediate future.

...Same as the old boss?

All nitpickery aside, I think we learned some vital information from Stahl's interview with STOked. The man is clearly dedicated, and STO will continue to expand in exciting new directions. I never doubted it, but Zinkievich's exit seemed to signal Armageddon to some fans.

More importantly, though, I see a new development philosophy in play. Where Zinkievich seemed set on promising everyone the moon, the stars and a beachfront condo on Ceti Alpha V, Stahl seems like a more practical chap. Already the folks at Cryptic have backed off new factions in favor of fleshing out the current content, and Stahl seems wholly aware of the Klingon faction's deficiencies.

I have very high hopes for STO under Stahl's leadership, and all it took was a single podcast. So here's to you, Mr. New Executive Producer! Make us proud!

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